I don’t know what was the first film I ever saw, but this one is a strong contender. I had a VHS recorded version when I was little, then years later I found a proper videotape and finally the DVD version. The idea of finding out you are in fact a genius and get to hang out in college with Val Kilmer was pure wish fulfillment for a geeky kid. I watch it again and again, year after year, and still find ways of appreciating Real Genius even though I am now a geeky woman.
For those who haven’t seen this movie, it’s about a 15 year-old named Mitch Taylor who gets accepted to a prestigious university. But more than that, he is put on a special team where he will work with another young genius who has become a physics legend. That legend is Chris Knight who has recently discovered there is life beyond the intellectual challenge of solving problems. That means to the outside world he looks like a fun slacker who uses slivers of liquid nitrogen instead of quarters.
This is fortunate for Mitch who is well on his way to breaking down at a young age. Unfortunately for both him and Chris, the man behind their team is the evil professor Hathaway. Hathaway has the team working on a laser that will be used to vaporize a target from space. Of course Hathaway doesn’t tell them what it will be used for or that the government is funding the research. He just turns his corral of smart people on the problem and dangles graduation and employment in front of them. Also by the government funding the project, I mean Hathaway takes their money and puts it into his house while putting pressure on Mitch and Chris in the lab.
Oh and in their dorm room closet, down in the steam tunnel, under the college, lives a man named Lazlo Hollyfeld. Lazlo was the big shot genius back in the 1970’s. Smarter than Mitch and Chris put together. Lazlo became obsessed with problems and coming up with the solutions. One day somebody told him that his work was being used to kill people and he cracked. Thus, he lives in the steam tunnels under the college that he gets to through the closet in Mitch and Chris’ dorm room. He is also manipulating a Frito Lay sweepstakes to guarantee that he wins about 30% of the prizes.
I love the great hack done by the main characters on the evil professor after they figure out how he is using their laser. I won’t spoil it, but it involves mostly social engineering to gain access to things they shouldn’t have and do things that should raise suspicions. I will say it involves lots of popcorn.
It also has one of the few password cracking scenes that works much like it does in real life. In most films, you get a bunch of characters that flash on the screen and one by one they lock to the correct character until the password is cracked. In Real Genius, they try complete passwords like AAAAA, AAAAB, AAAAC, …, but even then, they only get a couple of attempts before they are disconnected and need to dial in again to the computer they are trying to access. Normally, you would use a dictionary attack, but that’s nit picking.
Having completed college recently, I find Real Genius to be one of the more realistic college films. In my time at UC Berkeley as an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) major–supposedly the hardest major on campus–I never met any geniuses. I worked with smart people, but we all just worked our butts off. Maybe I didn’t notice because everybody was smart whether they were in my major or not? If they weren’t in my major, it wasn’t because they couldn’t do it, but because it wasn’t of any interest to them. In Real Genius these are all smart kids who work hard all the time while coming of age. They aren’t reduced to the genius or college student caricature. Instead, they learn that when you’re smart, people need you, but they will take advantage of your abilities and the joy that solving problems brings you.
I am also reminded with every viewing to stay away from the girl who asks you, “Can you hammer a six-inch spike through a board with your penis?” Her standards are just too high.
Hopefully, my standards will never get so high that I can’t enjoy this film.